Our U.S. Constitution created the U.S. Supreme Court, and lays out the groundwork for how the court operates, along with other federal courts. Most people understand that, short of a constitutional amendment, what the U.S. Supreme Court says on a particular case or issue becomes the law of the land. Thus, many people with an adverse court judgment dream of nothing less than taking their quest for justice all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to have the nine justices of the court hopefully rule in their favor. Indeed the court has created huge, lasting positive change for individual parties and whole movements when courageous clients and their attorneys take their cases all the way to the top, but how exactly does one get the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal?
Are You in State or Federal Court?
To be clear, there are two main types of court systems in the U.S. First, there is the federal court system, which includes federal district courts in all 50 states (and other jurisdictions), 13 appeals courts that sit above those federal district courts, and, at the top of it all, the U.S. Supreme Court.
But there are also separate state court systems in each of the 50 states that each have their own distinct appeals process. Whether a case is first brought in state or federal court depends in part upon the preference of the party bringing the case as well as whether a federal court has jurisdiction to hear the case (a defendant can remove a state court case to federal court in certain circumstances).
At any rate, the U.S. Supreme Court can potentially hear appeals from both state courts and federal courts, but where the case was originally litigated will affect the journey of getting to the highest court.
Have You Exhausted Your Lower Court Options?
To get to the U.S. Supreme Court, an appealing party will generally have to go through a series of other appeals courts first before the Supreme Court will even consider hearing an appeal.
If a case is originally tried in Washington State court, the first step will be to appeal the ruling in the Washington Court of Appeals, which includes three Divisions that cover different regions of the state. If that appeal is unsatisfactory, then a party can appeal to the Washington Supreme Court. Only then can the parties proceed to appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.
California state courts have a similar three-tier system of trial courts, regional appeals courts, and a statewide Supreme Court of California.
If the original trial was held in a federal district court in Washington or California, the first stop in the appeals process would be to file an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has courts in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Pasadena. Parties can then appeal directly from the Ninth Circuit to the US Supreme Court.
Can the US Supreme Court Hear Your Case?
The US Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction to hear every appeal. Because it is a federal court, it will only hear an appeal where the case was: 1) originally brought in the federal court system, or 2) there is a question of federal law affecting the outcome of the case in a state court action.
If your case was brought in state court originally, an experienced appeals attorney can examine the case to determine whether there is indeed a question of federal law (in criminal cases, this is often a potential violation of a person’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, including the right to not be unjustly imprisoned) such that the U.S. Supreme Court would have jurisdiction to hear the case.
Does the Court Want to Hear Your Case?
Even if the U.S. Supreme Court can hear your case, the bigger hurdle is often convincing the court to want to hear your case. The high court has discretion in what cases they can choose to hear on appeal and what cases they can decline to hear. If the court heard every appeal that was made to it, it would have a constant backlog it could never get through.
While the Supreme Court often does not provide explanations for why it hears cases and why it declines to hear cases, it will generally get involved in cases where it does not like the results that have occurred at a lower court or where the law may be unclear and the court thinks it can bring clarity.
You Likely Don’t Need to Go the Supreme Court to Win Justice
Again, while it is natural to dream of taking your case all the way to the highest court in the land to win a decisive victory, this is rarely necessary to win justice. Often, simply taking an incorrect verdict or decision to the next highest level of appellate courts in either state or federal court will provide the necessary relief to correct an improperly decided case.
Help in Your Washington and California Appeal
The Law Office of Corey Evan Parker is focused on the civil and criminal appeals process in Washington and California. If you are considering filing a criminal or civil appeal, feel free to contact Mr. Parker today for a no obligation 30-minute consultation.